3 questions that matter
1. Will the rush defense hold up? In 2012, Notre Dame’s defense allowed a mere 3.47 yards per carry (1,347 yards total). Last year, that average rose to 4.18 yards per carry (2,184 total). Are those numbers set to rise again? Defensive ends Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara are expected to provide quality pass-rush, but it remains to be seen how they’ll hold up securing the edge against the elite rushing attacks on the schedule. Okwara, who’s listed as a solid 260-pounds, will have to prove he’s an ideal fit as a defensive end in the 4-3 scheme and not as an outside ‘backer. No, Jarron Jones won’t get triple-teamed like last year’s starter Louis Nix, but he’ll have to play up to expectations (and potential) in order to give the Irish the production they need inside. Jones admitted last year he wasn’t fully motivated throughout the entire season, even dropping to the scout team for a week. Sheldon Day, the other starter at tackle, looks to be on the rise in the motivation department after dropping some weight this off-season, but it’s fair to say until proven on game day, Day and Jones are wild cards concerning consistency. Former walk-on Joe Schmidt will be called upon to be the primary run-stopper in the A and B gaps as middle linebacker. But, questions remain. With Jaylon Smith moving inside, will his speed and athleticism be less effective? Strong-side linebacker John Turner has the speed as well, but at less than 230 pounds, he’s still somewhat undersized. If teams decide to go straight up the middle, could Smith and Turner be at a disadvantage? 2. Is replacing last year’s veteran duo of Zack Martin and Chris Watt on the left side going to be a seamless transition? Add a new quarterback into the equation, and probably not. This isn’t to take away from what Notre Dame currently possesses on its roster on the offensive line. In fact, that position is stocked. But, Watt and (especially) Martin were stars in their own right that were models of how to play their positions. From what was observed on day one of fall camp, Ronnie Stanley and Matt Hegarty are going to occupy the left side. Stanley should emerge as the team’s No. 1 guy on the offensive line, and Notre Dame will need him to be a dominant force for 13 games if it’s going to have success running the ball, which includes executing the zone read with Golson at the helm. The zone read adds an entirely new dimension to this offense that could set the stage for lighting up the scoreboard. Much of that success is dependent on Golson and the line clicking on all cylinders. 3. Can more than one dominant pass-catcher emerge early in the season? DaVaris Daniels, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Ben Koyack, Durham Smythe. Daniels and Brown are expected to start at wide receiver, and both are true downfield threats with the ability to knack on yards after the catch. However, if Notre Dame is to move the chains better than it did last year, it will need big-time production from both starting wide receivers – not just one. It seems as though Kelly has downplayed Corey Robinson’s big play ability thus far in preseason 2014 – instead, choosing to highlight Daniel’s improved maturity and Brown’s knowledge of the playbook, but it would not surprise to see the sophomore slip into the starting rotation or at the very least garner a high number of snaps by the end of the season. His athletic prowess and leaping ability should be showcased more this year, especially in the red zone. Tight end Ben Koyack found a home in the end zone last year, and he’ll have to keep that spot occupied in 2014. A player that has potential to possess the “it” factor is redshirt freshman Durham Smythe, who could emerge as a solid threat over the middle this season.
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